Meta’s Horizon Worlds is shrinking, jeopardizing its metaverse ambitions
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re looking at Meta’s struggles to grow its Horizon Worlds platform, and what that says about its social-first push to sell mainstream consumers on VR and the metaverse. Also: a key endorsement for the Activision Blizzard deal and the voice acting controversy engulfing Nintendo’s Bayonetta 3.
‘An empty world is a sad world’
Meta, a company known for scaling social products to billions of users at breakneck speed, is facing a serious, expensive, and increasingly existential challenge in growing its nascent metaverse platform, Horizon Worlds.
The platform, currently a VR-only app, reported 300,000 monthly active users in February of this year. According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, however, that number is shrinking. While Meta set out in 2022 to grow the platform to more than half a million people, it has sunk to below 200,000 monthly users. In Horizon’s struggles lies a central hurdle for Meta: What if Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse flops?
Horizon isn’t sticky enough. Unlike other social networks, which rely on the dopamine rush of likes, comments, and algorithmic recommendations, Horizon Worlds is a VR playground that requires you to hang out with friends and strangers alike with a computer strapped to your face.
- The problem is that most people just don’t stick around. The WSJ’s report said most users stop logging back into Horizon after the first month, and only 9% of user-generated worlds are ever visited by more than 50 people.
- “An empty world is a sad world,” read an internal document on Horizon’s population problem. The report also states that more than half of all Quest headsets sold end up unused after six months.
- Not even the employees building the platform seem eager to use it. The Verge reported earlier this month that Metaverse VP Vishal Shah put the platform into a “quality lockdown” to squash bugs and improve the user experience while new features would be put on ice.
- Shah encouraged more employees in a company memo to use Horizon to help improve it: “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”
- “Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds. You can’t do that without using it,” Shah added in a second memo. “We are working on a product that has not found product market fit. If you are on Horizon, I need you to fully embrace ambiguity and change.”
Meta is gambling on a social-first vision. While most VR today revolves around gaming, Zuckerberg is pitching a version of the metaverse that’s immersive, social, and tethered to the real world, including people’s social and work lives.
- This comes with risks: What if only a limited number of people want to work with a VR headset on or socialize with friends or co-workers as cartoon avatars?
- “Back when we started working on this, we believed that over time social experiences would become the main way people would use VR. That’s coming true. Today the top apps in the Quest store are social metaverse apps,” Zuckerberg said during the Connect keynote.
- “For the first time, we can build technology centered around people and how we actually experience the world,” Zuckerberg added. “That's why the metaverse is first-person. Right? You feel like you’re actually in it.”
- This sounds compelling on paper, but the social experiences most people want to engage in right now are not nascent social networks or first-run VR versions of Microsoft software. They’re video games like Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft, none of which needed VR or productivity add-ons to grow.
Meta is banking on Horizon Worlds’ success. The company continues to buy VR game developers, including three new purchases announced last week, and operates a Roblox-like platform called Crayta. But Horizon Worlds is supposed to be Meta’s proof that social VR is the killer app of the metaverse. So far, it’s failing.
- The app has drawn criticism for its poor graphics and rudimentary avatars. Meta is planning to revamp the visuals and has showcased new, more realistic avatar designs.
- But at Meta Connect, when Zuckerberg announced that Horizon avatars would finally feature legs (instead of floating torsos) and realistic locomotion, the company had to quietly clarify after the fact that it used “animations created from motion capture.” Legs, it seems, are still in the oven.
A big hurdle for Horizon right now is that it requires a Quest headset, and Meta has seemingly given up on its strategy of subsidizing affordable VR to help maintain mainstream adoption. (Mobile and browser versions of Horizon are still on the way.)
- Meta raised the price of the Quest 2 earlier this year in response to the economic downturn.
- Last week Meta announced a $1,500 Quest Pro supposedly catering to “prosumer” customers who want to experiment with VR productivity apps, including a suite of Microsoft app integrations teased last week at Connect.
- This is all starting to cost Meta a lot of money. The company’s stock price is down 60% this year. Over the past two quarters, Meta has incurred nearly $6 billion in losses on its Reality Labs division, with tens of billions more spending planned for the years ahead.
Horizon Worlds in many ways feels like a microcosm of Meta’s struggle to build the metaverse. It’s an ambitious product that can at times evoke profound social experiences, but it is also trying too much too early. The New York Times’ Kashmir Hill wrote this month that her extensive use of the app helped her meet a diverse cast of strangers from all over the world, but she also compared the experience to “surfing AOL chat rooms in the 1990s.”
Is the platform a video game, a social network, both? Does it really need VR, or can it gain traction as a mobile app or desktop website? Meta doesn’t really know what Horizon Worlds is yet, just like it doesn’t know exactly what the metaverse will look like, who might build it, or what we’ll all want to do in there. Zuckerberg says he has a pretty good idea as to the answers, but so far, he’s missing the mark.
— Nick Statt
A MESSAGE FROM GOALS HOUSE
It's becoming increasingly appreciated among the broader business and NGO community that the planet and people elements of sustainability are mutually dependent, and as such a focus on one at the exclusion of the other will be fruitless. But balancing profit and sustainability progress remains a more thorny debate.
“We’re certainly of the belief that it’s a good thing for Microsoft and for the industry. We’re in favor … It’s a highly fragmented business and there’s plenty of room for creativity to go around. Microsoft is an ally of ours, and if this makes their business more powerful, we think that’s good for us.” — Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive, endorsed Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which is now facing intense regulatory scrutiny, in an interview last week with The Wrap.
“Mobile is a great place to have a successful game. At the core of it, what I wanted to do was make a game I really wanted to play. I had just become a father. My son was born basically the day Hearthstone was released and I found that it was much easier for me to play mobile games. So I wanted to build something that I would be able to play more often.” — Ben Brode, the game director for Blizzard’s Hearthstone, spoke to The Washington Post about working with Marvel on the free-to-play mobile game Marvel Snap with his new studio, Second Dinner.
In other news
Netflix adds a profile transfer feature. The new feature will make it easier for people to disentangle shared accounts; Netflix blames account sharing for some of its recent woes.
Nintendo settles labor dispute with contractor. A former game tester for Nintendo of America has settled with the company and its U.S. staffing agency for $25,000 after accusing the firms of retaliating against them for asking about unionization, Axios reported.
Apple’s headset is supposed to have an iris-scanning feature. The still-unannounced device could use biometrics for authentication; a new report from The Information claims Apple’s design will also conceal outward-facing cameras.
Activision Blizzard faces another sexual harassment lawsuit. An unnamed employee filed a lawsuit last week alleging serial harassment from former manager Miguel Vega, who was only fired last fall after years of reports regarding his behavior.
Samsung is licensing its TV OS to third-party manufacturers. To grow its advertising business, Samsung is now making Tizen for TVs available to some ODM companies.
G4’s short-lived second life. Comcast’s Spectacor is shutting down G4 TV, the video game and pop culture channel that was revived just last year after first shutting down back in 2014, Deadline reported. The company’s leaked memo cited low viewership.
Overwatch 2 hits a major milestone. Despite an incredibly bumpy launch, the new free-to-play iteration of Overwatch racked up more than 25 million players in just 10 days, a feat it took its paid predecessor roughly eight months to achieve.
Take-Two shuts down Playdots. The Grand Theft Auto publisher is shutting down the mobile developer behind Dots and Two Dots, Bloomberg reported. Take-Two, which spent close to $13 billion this year on Zynga, acquired the studio only two years ago for $192 million.
Bayonetta’s voice actor speaks out
The upcoming third installment in Nintendo and PlatinumGames’ Bayonetta franchise is now facing a boycott after actress Hellena Taylor, the original voice of the titular character in the series’ first two installments, said she was offered a paltry sum to reprise her role.
Taylor said Platinum offered just $4,000 for the role, and that was after she auditioned and received an even lower offer first. Although the number is in line with U.S. union minimums for an estimated 16 hours of work, Taylor said her experience and the success of the Bayonetta franchise justified higher compensation.
- “This is an insult to me, the amount of time that I took to work on my talent and everything that I have given to this game and the fans,” Taylor said. “I’m asking the fans to boycott this game and instead spend the money you would spend on this game, donating it to charity.”
- Taylor’s absence from the game was first disclosed earlier this month, when Platinum revealed it had opened auditions to other performers and had chosen well-known voice actress Jennifer Hale, who has responded by saying she’s prohibited under NDA to disclose specifics.
- At the time, Bayonetta 3 director Yusuke Miyata said “overlapping circumstances” had ruled out Taylor for the role.
Voice actors are speaking up about worker exploitation, not just in video games, but also in the anime and traditional animation industries.
- Because voice actors are hired on contract, they are often paid day rates based on the number of hours required in the studio.
- SAG-AFTRA, a leading entertainment union in the U.S. of which Taylor is a member, dictates hourly rates for actors, but overseas companies do not always hire actors on union contracts and, in the case of recent hit anime Mob Psycho 100, sometimes explicitly refuse to work under union terms.
- Video game voice actors have begun shedding light on the lack of residuals and royalties and the entertainment industry’s tendency to skip over seasoned performers in favor of well-known celebrities. (See: Chris Pratt in the Mario movie.)
Taylor’s plight has become a rallying cry for voice actors, but it’s also touched off a sensitive debate over how much money should be considered a fair and livable wage for performers in games and other industries. Some actors have defended Platinum for paying what is considered industry standard, though it’s not known for sure how many studio hours the role required.
Regardless, the voice of Bayonetta is fed up. “I was just asking for a decent, dignified living wage,” Taylor said. “What they did was legal, but it was immoral.”
— Nick Statt
A MESSAGE FROM GOALS HOUSE
Currently, much of the ‘E’ in ESG is focussed on climate only, and it is essential that companies also focus on biodiversity, recognizing nature-climate linkages in order to optimize mitigation and build resilience. ESG will prepare us for the necessary paradigm shift, driven by increasing external pressures forced upon us as a result of short-term profits.
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